RAF scrambles to intercept Russian bombers


Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor
July 18, 2007

RAF fighter jets were scrambled to intercept two Russian strategic bombers heading for British airspace yesterday, as the spirit of the Cold War returned to the North Atlantic once again.

The incident, described as rare by the RAF, served as a telling metaphor for the stand-off between London and Moscow over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

While the Kremlin hesitated before responding to Britain's expulsion of four diplomats, the Russian military engaged in some old-fashioned sabre-rattling.

Two Tu95 "Bear" bombers were dispatched from their base on the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic Circle and headed towards British airspace.

Britain and Russia are heading for a serious breakdown in relations over the man wanted for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko

Russian military aircraft based near the northern port city of Murmansk fly patrols off the Norwegian coast regularly, but the RAF said that it was highly unusual for them to stray as far south as Scotland.

Two Tornado fighters, part of the RAF's Quick Reaction Alert, took off from RAF Leeming, in Yorkshire, to confront the Russian aircraft, after they were shadowed by two F16s from the Royal Norwegian Air Force, The Times has learnt.

"The Russians turned back before they reached British airspace," an RAF spokesman said.

There was no evidence to suggest that the incident was connected with the diplomatic row over the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy, the main suspect in the murder of Litvinenko. Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, criticised the British reaction but urged the Kremlin not to escalate the conflict. "Why does one former KGB officer killing another deserve this attention?" he asked.

In London, Yuri Fedotov, the Russian Ambassador to London, said that Russia would soon respond against Britain and admitted that relations were strained.

"The response will follow. It takes time. We are serious people," he said. "It is really hard to be optimistic today. I hope in the long run our relations will be restarted - reloaded, so to say - but that is not the best moment of the history of our bilateral relations."

Planes didn't enter UK air space: Russia



Russia's air force commander on Wednesday denied two of his long-range bombers intended to enter British air space on Tuesday, saying the planes were on a training flight unconnected to recent diplomatic tension between London and Moscow.

Britain's Royal Air Force scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Tupolev "Bear" bombers as they headed towards British air space but a Defence Ministry spokesman in London said the bombers turned back long before reaching Britain.

"Our planes were flying planned flights over neutral waters," Russian Air Force Commander Col Gen Alexander Zelin told the Interfax news agency.

"Such flights have been carried out and will be carried out in line with a plan for training long-range aircraft crews."

The incident, with its echoes of Cold War military standoffs, came amid a furious diplomatic row between London and Moscow.

Britain has ordered the expulsion of four Russian diplomats after Moscow refused to extradite the key suspect in the murder of a Russian emigre in London last year.

Russia's Zelin said any suggestion that the bombers' flights were related to recent tension between the two countries was "sheer nonsense", Interfax added.

"We plan flights of bombers in line with a combat training program at least half a year beforehand," it quoted him as saying.

"We resolve our domestic problems in training flight crews and do not interfere in politics."

The Tupolev Tu-95, codenamed "Bear" by NATO, is Russia's equivalent of the US B-52 bomber and is a Cold War icon.

Originally designed to drop nuclear weapons, it has been adapted for a wide variety of roles including surveillance and maritime patrol.